By Fiona Batterham, NSW Financial Inclusion Coordinator

Start as you mean to go on… This is a saying I learned from several years of living in Belfast, Northern Ireland working in the employment sector.

When I was 16 I turned in a history paper on the political and social troubles of Northern Ireland during the 1970s and ’80s. I received an A– grade for the paper and rightly so at 16, was pretty happy with that result. I thought nothing more about these issues until I lived in Northern Ireland some years later. I discovered that, with experience, our perspective expands.

Start as you mean to go on… This resonates so much in my current work with Community Gateway. Our staff have the heart, knowledge, skills and qualifications to deliver programs and services that address the complex vulnerabilities of our clients, be it financial, social or physical. Housing barriers, low income, the effects of violence, reduced capacity for self-care, the effects of flood or COVID-90, mental health, health status, and of course loneliness. These are just some of the factors that increase the likelihood of poverty in our communities. Vulnerability stems from poverty. It doesn’t stem from individuals themselves. In Australia, poverty is still largely seen as an individual issue and not a structural or systemic one. Working in the community sector has given me perspective on this.

Community Gateway is committed to alleviating poverty, disadvantage and creating social impact. Our practice framework strengthens our capability to do just that. Our people and services hold a safe space for our clients, supporting their own self-determination and pathways out of poverty.

Last year during the early stages of COVID-19, I had the privilege of working in Community Gateway’s First Step emergency relief service, considered a soft entry point to our wrap-around service delivery model. Clients experience vulnerability and in many cases are trauma affected when they present to request access to one of our numerous supports. They may be supported immediately through access to food or other financial supports.

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From here, our wrap-around service delivery model provides clients with internal pathways to relevant, additional support streams within our organisation, including therapeutic trauma counselling, parenting case management, housing support and many other financial inclusion services to address longer term needs. We facilitate the engagement of volunteers to address the issue of social vulnerability in our communities, and our community hub is also a busy information and referral service. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our services were overwhelmed with requests for support. This wrap-around service delivery works, and our staff are committed to this model.

Whilst we provide direct grass roots supports to vulnerable people, Community Gateway is also the leading partner of the NSW Financial Inclusion Network, a policy think tank concerned with financial inclusion. We aim to influence policy discussions to create a more financial inclusion future for NSW.

Physical, financial and social vulnerability increased during the 2017 floods in Lismore and the wider Northern Rivers regional areas including Murwillumbah and Richmond Valley. Last year during my work in our First Step service, clients still spoke of their personal horrors of flood impact. What stood out for me was the extraordinary display of resilience through lived experience of disadvantage and poverty. And let’s not forget, through no fault of their own. Our organisation was still able to deliver supports to the most vulnerable people at this time, even though our Lismore office was completely inundated by the floods – resulting in a complete rebuild of our ground floor!

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, Our organisation remained open to deliver emergency relief and other supports to our communities. We’ve adopted virtual service delivery for continuous provision, and our staff even volunteered to deliver food boxes to the most vulnerable and isolated. Adapting to the challenges of floods, COVID-19 and whatever else may come is something Community Gateway is committed to.

Start as you mean to go on… Getting the right people for your organisation helps this to happen. It starts with someone’s values and how this aligns with the organisation. It starts with respect, cultural humility, self-awareness, knowledge, and motivation for social change and impact. In the current political and economic climate, we are moved to think and act strategically and innovatively, whilst remaining client-centered in practice. I think we all need to add juggling to our resumes!

Start as you mean to go on… I can say this from the perspective of middle class privilege, where I’ve been afforded stable housing, a respectable income, an excellent standard of education, good health, and healthy children. I am certain I wouldn’t be saying this if I was born or lived a life in poverty.

Poverty can be alleviated but this can’t happen if we, as a community, state and country continue to attribute poverty and vulnerability to individuals and individual problems. We need to expand our perspective, work collaboratively with government agencies and other non-government agencies invested in supporting financial and social inclusion, remain client-centred, and continue to play to our strengths – to achieve social impact.

We need to find that new starting point, so that people can really start as they mean to go on, because right now we’re just not there. Through experience, our perspective expands. It’s time to listen to the voices of the community sector and listen to those voices still living in poverty.

Let’s continue the conversation during anti-poverty week.

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